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Steven Levitsky's 'Tyranny of the Minority' warns Americans about threats to democracy

Activists rally for voting rights and DC statehood as they block traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue SE on December 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. ShutDownDC and other activist groups staged a multi-site blockade around the US Capitol to demand congressional action on climate, immigration, racial justice, healthcare and childcare, voting rights and statehood for DC, and more. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Activists rally for voting rights and DC statehood as they block traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue SE on December 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. ShutDownDC and other activist groups staged a multi-site blockade around the US Capitol to demand congressional action on climate, immigration, racial justice, healthcare and childcare, voting rights and statehood for DC, and more. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Professor Steven Levitsky‘s new book “Tyranny of the Minority” is a warning to Americans who don’t take threats to democracy as seriously as they should. He joins us.

Book excerpt: ‘Tyranny of the Minority’

By Steven Levitsky


In January 5, 2021, an extraordinary event took place in Georgia. In a state where politics had long been stained by white supremacy, voters turned out in record numbers to elect their first African American senator, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, and their first Jewish American senator. Warnock was only the second Black senator to be elected in the South since Reconstruction, joining the Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina. That night, he introduced supporters to his mother, a former sharecropper, noting that “the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.” For many, the election presaged a brighter, more democratic future. “There’s a new South rising,” declared LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “It’s younger, it’s more diverse . . . and it’s more inclusive.” This was the democratic future that generations of civil rights activists had been working to build.

The next day, January 6, Americans witnessed something that seemed unimaginable: a violent insurrection, incited by the president of the United States. Four years of democratic decline had culminated in an attempted coup. The fear, confusion, and indignation that many Americans felt as they watched these events unfold echo the way people in other countries have described feeling as their own democracies unraveled. What we had just lived through—a surge in politically motivated violence; threats against election workers; e”orts to make it harder for people to vote; a campaign by the president to overturn the results of an election— was democratic backsliding. The republic did not collapse between 2016 and 2021, but it became undeniably less democratic.

In a span of twenty-four hours on January 5 and January 6, 2021, the full promise and peril of American democracy were on vivid display: a glimpse of a possible multiracial democratic future, followed by an almost unthinkable assault on our constitutional system.

Multiracial democracy is hard to achieve. Few societies have ever done it. A multiracial democracy is a political system with regular, free, and fair elections in which adult citizens of all ethnic groups possess the right to vote and basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association. It is not enough for these rights to exist on paper: individuals of all ethnic backgrounds must enjoy equal protection of democratic and civil rights under the law. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally established a legal foundation for multiracial democracy in America. But even today, we have not fully achieved it.

Access to the ballot remains unequal, for example. A 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that African American and Latino citizens were three times as likely as whites to be told they lacked the proper identification to vote and twice as likely to be told—incorrectly—that their names were not listed on voter rolls. Laws barring convicted felons from voting disproportionately a”ect African Americans. And nonwhite citizens still do not receive equal protection under the law. Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police during their lifetime as are white men (even though Black victims of police killing are about half as likely to be armed); they are more likely than white men to be stopped and searched by police; and they are more likely to be arrested and convicted—with longer sentences—for similar crimes. If you have any doubt that Black citizens do not enjoy the same rights under the law as white citizens, apply the Kyle Rittenhouse test: Could a young Black man cross state lines with a semiautomatic rifle, walk unmolested by police into a protest, fire into a crowd, kill two people, and go free?

But if America is not yet a truly multiracial democracy, it is becoming one. In the half century between the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, American society changed in fundamental ways. A massive wave of immigration transformed what had been a predominantly white Christian society into a diverse and multiethnic one. And at the same time, the growing political, economic, legal, and cultural power of nonwhite Americans challenged—and began to level— long-entrenched racial hierarchies. Public opinion research shows that for the first time in U.S. history a majority of Americans now embrace ethnic diversity and racial equality—the two key pillars of multiracial democracy. By 2016, then, America was on the brink of a genuinely multiracial democracy—one that could serve as a model for diverse societies across the world.

But just as this new democratic experiment was beginning to take root, America experienced an authoritarian backlash so fierce that it shook the foundations of the republic, leaving our allies across the world worried about whether the country had any democratic future at all. Meaningful steps toward democratic inclusion often trigger intense—even authoritarian—reactions. But the assault on American democracy was worse than anything we anticipated in 2017, when we were writing our first book, How Democracies Die. We have studied violent insurrections and efforts to overturn elections all over the world, from France and Spain to Ukraine and Russia to the Philippines, Peru, and Venezuela. But we never imagined we’d see them here. Nor did we ever imagine that one of America’s two major parties would turn away from democracy in the twenty-first century.

The scale of America’s democratic retreat was sobering. Organizations that track the health of democracies around the world captured it in numerical terms. Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index gives countries a score between 0 and 100 each year, with 100 being the most democratic. In 2015, the United States received a score of 90, which was roughly in line with countries like Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, and the U.K. But after that, America’s score declined steadily, reaching 83 in 2021. Not only was that score lower than every established democracy in western Europe, but it was lower than new or historically troubled democracies like Argentina, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Taiwan.

This was an extraordinary turn of events. According to nearly every major social scientific account of what makes democracies thrive, America should have been immune to backsliding. Scholars have discovered two virtually law-like patterns regarding modern political systems: rich democracies never die, and old democracies never die. In a well-known study, the political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi found that no democracy richer than Argentina in 1976—its per capita GDP, in today’s dollars, was about $16,000—had ever broken down. Democracy subsequently eroded in Hungary, which had a per capita GDP of about $18,000 (in today’s dollars). The United States’ per capita GDP was about $63,000 in 2020—nearly four times that of the richest country ever to su”er a democratic breakdown. Likewise, no democracy over fifty years old has ever died. Even if we take the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as the moment of America’s democratization (that is, after all, when the country achieved full adult su”rage), our democracy was still over fifty when Trump ascended to the presidency. So both history and decades of social science research tell us that American democracy should have been safe. And yet it wasn’t

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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